As I read the passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians thispast Sunday, I found myself taken back to a scene from my childhood...or more accurately, a scene I saw in a movie when I was a child. There’s a very poignant and touching scene in the movie Jaws that has always stood out to me. In the midst of all the bloodshed and carnage, there’s a beautiful, touching scene where Chief Brody sits in silence at his kitchen table. He’s dealing with a man-eating shark, the prospect of destroying the local economy, townspeople up in arms, and a mayor breathing down his neck. He seems to be at rock-bottom. And he sits silently at his kitchen table with his hands folded, almost as if he is praying. He glances up and sees that his son, Sean, is doing the same thing. So Chief Brody wiggles his fingers a little bit, and Sean copies him. And this little game of monkey-see, monkey-do goes on for a few seconds. It’s a beautiful, touching, and heart-warming scene in the midst of what is otherwise a masterfully-filmed bloodbath!
Why does Sean imitate Chief Brody? Because he is his father. Because he loves and respects him. Because he admires him, and sees his father as worthy of imitation. So, too, does Paul exhort the Thessalonians—and, indeed, all of us—to be imitators of Christ!
Turning our attention to the Gospel reading, the Pharisees are once again trying to trap Jesus with His own words. This time, a scholar of the law approaches Jesus and asks him which is the greatest of the commandments. Now, this scholar fully expects that Jesus will name one of the commandments of the Decalogue, thus incurring the wrath of the Pharisees who will claim that he rejects part of the Law. But Jesus is more clever than this and He responds with the following:
“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
At first glance, Jesus is merely answering the question. But what he really is doing is giving us a very simple, yet effective, exposition on the nature of authentic Christian love! He starts by quoting the great commandment, the Shema Israel: You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. The operative word in this statement is all. We are not called to love God with most of our heart, mind, and soul, but all. 100%! A logical question then is, how am I to love anything else if I love God with my entire capacity to love? This is where it gets a little more involved.
You see, Jesus says that the second commandment is “like” the first. Indeed, he uses this word “like” as if to say that the one commandment is not subordinated to the other, but that they are comparable, equal, and truly necessary for one another. So, how do we love our neighbor as ourselves (or how do we even love ourselves, for that matter) if all of our love is given to God. We don’t!
We are not called to love our neighbor, because when we love someone for themselves, we are not really loving them. How many people have said at one point in time that they love someone? Ask yourself: what do you love about them? The answers are always, “She’s beautiful,” or “He makes me laugh,” or “I like being around her,” or “I’m comfortable around him.” But all of these statements only refer to the attributes of another person. You are not loving the person himself (or herself).
To love another person authentically, we must understand that every human person has inherent worth, inherent value. Each person has that value because we are all created in the imagine and likeness of God. And so, to love another person truly and authentically is not to love the attributes of an individual. To love another person authentically is to love God through the other person. Our job as Christians is to seek to find God in every living person, and to make them an instrument through which we love God!
But love is a two-way street, isn’t it? We give love. But we also want to receive love. If others are to love God through us, then we have some work to do! After all, it’s really hard to love a jerk isn’t it? And it’s really difficult to see God in someone who is a real pain in the neck! We, then, have to be imitators of Christ so as to help others to love God through us!
This is why St. Paul talks about the Thessalonians being imitators of Christ and of himself. This is why we, as Christians, look to the examples of the lives of the Saints and the Fathers of the Church—holy men and women who made it so easy to love God through them! This is how we are called to be: lovers of God through others, and conduits of God’s love for others to see Him!
We cannot authentically love our neighbors without the love of God. Similarly, we cannot love God completely without loving our neighbors!
May God give us the grace to seek to be imitators of Christ, the courage to seek to love God through others, and the strength to be witnesses of God’s love for all the world to see!